Barnier’s eleventh hour pronouncement that the Chequers deal is unacceptable to the EU should come as no surprise to anyone.
Life is a series of lessons. We learn from our own lived experiences and by observing the varied fortunes of those around us. Unfortunately, when it comes to contemporary British politics, people have extremely short memories. Three years ago, David Cameron promised to return with a new deal for the UK to stay in the EU. He seemed confident that he would achieve meaningful commitments from the Commission and 27 Members of the Council that would convince the British people that the UK was a valued influencer, which belongs in the EU.
The EU begged to differ. Appeasing British exceptionalism was not on the table and the deal David Cameron came back with was nothing short of a damp squib. It is telling that throughout the entire EU referendum and even the months building up to it David Cameron’s deal was barely mentioned. Indeed, I cannot think of one time it was raised as a reason for staying.
This failure and the perceived dismissive attitude shown to the UK was part of the reason why the majority of British voters decided that the UK was better out of the EU.
Over two years later, a different PM has been hurtling around the capitals of Europe trying to make a deal with the EU. To say that since Article 50 was triggered, at the end of March 2017, the negotiations have been moving at a glacial pace would be unfair to glaciers. The UK and EU have been caught between the EU’s desire to protect its integrity and British government’s attempts to have its cake and eat it.
The EU is experienced with dealing with non-EU countries, in fact it is quite good at doing so, but in its dealings with member states a dogmatic authoritarian streak appears. Moreover, the Commission has been clear. There is no way British exceptionalism will be tolerated, no cherry picking will be allowed. The UK must either be in or out of the customs union.
As Theresa May’s Brexit White Paper clearly demonstrates the government hasn’t quite picked-up on the EU’s no cherry picking message. Moreover, it isn’t just the EU that the White Paper has alienated. Ideally the document should not have made either of the Brexit extremes particularly pleased. Instead, its original manifestation received praise from the fanatical remainers and damnation from the Brexit Puritans. Then the government switched tack alienating the remainers with a series of amendments. Thus began another episode of governmental self-harm which was added to by the public airing of then-Brexit Secretary David Davis’ battles with the prime minister’s European Advisor, Olly Robbins.
We’ve been here before with this government. The Brexit White Paper was in many regards a carbon copy of the general election debacle over the Conservative manifesto. Written in secret, without the knowledge or input of the relevant departments or ministers. Foisted on an unsuspecting party with orders from on high that it be supported without question. At least the author of 2017’s electoral suicide note lost his seat. The fear of many Brexiteers is that the shadowy remainer cabal behind the White Paper have nothing to lose. They’re already looking forward to plush seats on the board of some multinational win or lose. They will not experience the ignominy that has been poured onto MPs by their Associations and members. They won’t have to explain themselves at the party conference or to the voters. The lurch in the opinion polls however painted their own grim picture. The government has so far only held together by a heady mixture of self-preservation, Brexiteer concessions, timely recesses, and above all, the dire state of Britain’s opposition party which seems more intent of refighting the battles of the 1930s than the 2020s.
That just leaves the elephant in the room with the White Paper. How does Britain leave the EU when its courts are still be obligated to abide by EU court decisions, where an EU ‘common rulebook’ is applied not to mention the backstop? This is after all what has triggered some from the remain side like Nick Boles to come out against the Chequers plan.
The ‘common rulebook’ would keep the UK in a de facto goods and Agri Customs Union, while the Facilitated Customs Arrangement would, as far as it was explained in the White Paper, reinforce this betrayal of Brexit.
As Einstein once said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again whilst expecting a different result. It is hard to think of a better description at present for the actions of the British government.
The White Paper was an exercise in misguided cherry picking. The UK trying to be in a Customs union without being in the Customs Union was not going to sit well with the EU Commission or the Council, as we have already seen by the Commission’s rhetoric. The irony it seems is that the EU gets it, that Brexit means Brexit; too bad many in government have yet to receive the memo.
Christopher Alley is a Director at Barndoor Strategy and formerly worked for James Wharton MP.